Failure to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change is Biggest Global Risk

Credit: Photo Credit: FEMA

Record floods in the Midwest and Africa, drought in California and Australia, and heatwaves across Europe - 2015 has been an extreme year for extreme weather. While no single extreme weather event can be said to be the result of climate change, long-term trends indicate it is a significant driver. 2015 also has the inglorious status of being one of the hottest years on record, continuing a trend of record breaking years. For 19 consecutive years, the annual average temperature has exceeded the 20th century average.

So what does all this mean? Climate change is having an impact, and will continue to have an impact. Even if all carbon emissions were to cease tomorrow, anthropogenic-caused climate change will still occur. Its effects are locked in for the foreseeable future due to the long atmospheric half-life for carbon. The World Economic Forum, in its recent Global Risks Report, listed climate change and its associated impacts at the forefront of risks faced by the global community. According to the report, "climate change-related risks have moved from hypothetical to certain because insufficient action has been undertaken to address them."

The extent of climate change and how we are affected by its impacts are completely dependent on the actions we take now. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adaptation are necessary actions to minimize climate impacts, like extreme weather events. Failure to mitigate and adapt are not ethically responsible options due to the global ramifications.

In the report, the failure to mitigate and adapt is considered the most impactful risk for the coming decade, ahead of water crises and large-scale involuntary migration. Also, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation is one of the most likely risks to occur, only preceded by extreme weather events and large-scale involuntary migration. All of which are interconnected.

The climate change effects of water shortages and the likelihood of extreme weather events feature prominently in the report.

Extreme weather events can be economically and socially devastating for many regions of the world. As noted by the report, climate change will amplify security problems. Extreme weather events, including prolonged high temperatures and droughts, floods, and sea levels rise, are expected to occur more frequently and at greater magnitude. These events will further stress many countries beset by poverty and instability, and could potentially result in large-scale migrations of climate refugees, inflaming regional tensions.

For the United States, extreme weather events are the second biggest threat and cause billions of dollars in disaster-related damages. In the 2015 alone, ten weather-related disasters, each exceeding $1 billion in damage, occurred in the United States. A growing trend that is likely to increase as climate change continues to load the dice when it comes to extreme events.

Credit: Graph Credit: NOAA,

As the report highlights, there is an "urgent necessity" to mitigate and adapt to minimize the consequences of climate change. That is why NRDC's Water and Climate Team has been working on multiple fronts to promote federal and state policies that address extreme weather and disaster risks by:

  • Ensuring the updated federal flood protection standard is implemented. The federal flood protection standard requires federal agencies to build federally-funded infrastructure, such as bridges, schools, and water and wastewater treatment plants, safer and smarter by accounting for the impacts of climate change on future floods.
  • Making it easier for people to relocate to higher ground. NRDC has developed a proposal for reforming the National Flood Insurance Program that would make insurance more affordable for low- and middle-income property owners, while also guaranteeing them assistance to relocate after suffering major flood damage.
  • Better assessing the risks of extreme rainfall and flooding due to climate change. At NRDC's urging, FEMA recently decided to require states to include an assessment of climate risks when developing disaster preparedness plans, also known as Hazard Mitigation Plans. These plans are important sources of information about community vulnerability and are used to prioritize how best to mitigate risks from future extreme storms and flooding.

Climate change is not a matter of "if;" it is occurring and will continue to occur with worsening severity, unless we, collectively, take action to mitigate and adapt to its effects.

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